Recently I attended an LDS fireside where Richard L Bushman, an acclaimed LDS historian and author, spoke on “Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates”. Here’s what I wrote on Facebook about this fireside:
If I were to summarize his presentation: the gold plates have been a fascination for both believers and non-believers. He showed some slides of different ways the plates have been used in media, including South Park and a play that centers around a guy who is visited by an angel and given steel plates. The gold plates had both a materialistic quality, and a supernatural quality, that bridges the gap between the two worlds. It was meant to be a kind of evidence for skeptics of the time, and skeptics today too. He admitted non-believers will scoff at the fact the plates aren’t available. Someone asked why the Book of Abraham papyri was allowed to be handled and looked at by anyone, and why the same wasn’t true for the gold plates. He said that was a good question and that he would need to think about it more. I’m guessing he of course has thought about that before. As to why the plates weren’t actually used during translation, he said maybe the plates were something to inspire a revelation instead of a traditional translation, just like the BoA papyri did.
Personally I feel like Bushman is trying to move the conversation along, and I appreciate that. I may not agree with all his conclusions but I think he’s doing work that needs to be done.
I think Dr. Bushman is opening the door for the Book of Mormon to be recognized as a non-historical revelation instead of a literal history of Jews who traveled to the Americas. To me, this is a much more realistic and healthy way to look at scripture. Modern Biblical academics also show the Bible is made of writings that aren’t historically accurate, but are reflective of the authors’ attempts to grapple with the divine. Dr. Bushman is able to walk a line that few others would even attempt. I hope he continues to be successful at that.